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Elf Power

Elf Power has recently been walking a line of subtlety that appears banal compared to their early sonic experiments.  About four years ago, the band was working on A Dream in Sound, their most openly experimental and diverse record to date.  Moods ranged from carnivalesque to sincere and a wash of horns, keyboards, and samples often blurred the line between the two.  Lyrically, the album showed a cohesiveness that went beyond “concept album” and into some notion of “art” or “poetry.”  It would not be fair to say that Elf Power has gone down hill from that point, but their two newer albums have required more effort on the part of listeners to realize how well crafted the music continues to be.

Creatures, released this May, like The Winter is Coming before it, does not suffer from a lack of accessibility.  Elf Power has always been accessible, just as most bands from Athens have (at least amongst the Elephant 6).  The key to the success of these bands has always been mixing a straightforward rock/folk/psychedelic sound with a current of complex instrumentation and lyricism underneath.  With Elf Power’s last two albums, the superficial straightforwardness has remained while the complexity underneath has not been as obvious.  A Dream in Sound deliberately creates rough edges to draw attention to its complexity.  The range of instruments, lyrics, and experimental noise signal that something else is going on.  On Creatures, the final product is so smooth that the listener might not think to look for anything complex or experimental.

Elf Power creates this smoothness by combining familiar elements with better production.  The lyrics again explore Andrew Rieger’s fascination with the mystical aspects of nature (although reducing the lyrics in this way misses Rieger’s stronger metaphysical points), the chord progressions and melodies seem as simple as ever, almost to the point of seeming a little too familiar, and the mastering provides a crispness suggesting Elf Power’s farewell to their lo-fi roots.  If these elements do not turn you off the record, you might just listen to it enough times to realize that Elf Power utilizes all of these aspects to create a “creature” of an album shuddering with a life and beauty so pristine and elegant that no other chord progressions or production would have suited it.  This has consistently been Elf Power’s threat and promise – the most innocent and straightforward, almost “cute” Elephant 6 band that somehow manages to continually create and examine worlds strikingly wonderful and devastating in their implications for our “real” world.  If you have ever discarded an Elf Power album as too fantastically trite or simple, you have missed its deepest attack on everything you consider stable and meaningful.  Although it took me several listens to realize this, Creatures proves no exception.

One figure that Rieger uses throughout the lyrics explains and strengthens the move towards simplicity on Creatures.  This figure involves the use of locality and the metaphorical opposition between “underground”/”underneath” and “over”/”above.”  Rieger’s repeated references to creatures lurking beneath us take on an element of absurdity.  These claims are repeated so often that “underneath” begins to resonate with all of its paranoid and hierarchical implications.  The serpent’s underground (as are the spirits that pull from underneath and the creature waiting right beneath your feet), and this suggests two unique but perversely connected reactions.  The first is paranoia:  what the hell is this creature doing underneath?  Is it hiding under the bed, right down there with the aliens and the government plots?  The second is superiority:  these creatures, like all of the creatures that Rieger has employed to make a case for the validity of the worlds of dreams and fantasies, are only objects of the imagination, cute at best, repulsive at worst, and they have nothing to do with the rational autonomous projects of myself and the rest of Western civilization.  The link between paranoia and superiority is a link of difference and subsequently threat:  these creatures are foreign to me, and therefore they disrupt my security and rationality.  The only purpose they serve comes in my ability to oppose myself to them – the creatures, in all of their silliness, grossness, and perverse imaginativeness, are everything that I am not.

In several of the songs, this attitude is under attack.  The opening track “Let the Serpent Sleep” provides a very straightforward plea hinged on the fact that nature contains many “facts” that we have no reason to judge in any way as being “wrong” or “evil.”  The day turns into night / The dog will always bite, and the serpent was never a literal embodiment of evil.  We made the serpent out to be this way in order to establish a notion of not evil, of good, of moral correctness.  We were able to do this to the serpent because We’re frozen underneath, unresponsive to nature’s simplicity of being.  “The Creature” offers a prophecy that reveals the frailty of our systems that define good and evil, human and inhuman, rational and creative, and generally cover nature with an artificial web of meaning:  Come on under / I’ll be waiting / right beneath your feet / Time is over / we’re forgotten / lightning fills the seas.  This last line not only offers a beautiful image of raw nature, it also suggests the primordial soup and the electric genesis of life.  Further lyrics go on to describe the appeal of raw nature, the limits of the modern mind that cannot comprehend this nature on its own terms, and the possibilities for intertwining our understandings of these two phenomena.

The real catch comes when you realize that Elf Power has used the under/above, inside/outside motif in order to deconstruct it.  Rather than being underneath or outside of us, creatures are actually part of what makes us human.  We all share in the grotesque, the absurd, the hideous, the silly, the fantastic, and if we would allow our imaginations to do more with this than our rationality, we might be able to do something with these characteristics other than suppress them.  The refreshing and troubling power of Elf Power’s music has always been to show not a world of fantasy lying somewhere at the edge of our perception or the limits of our imagination, but a world that we are constantly participating in and choosing to ignore. 

With this realization, Elf Power’s choice of style and production take on significant rhetorical strength.  If they had used sampled noise and a variety of non-traditional instruments on Creatures, Elf Power would be perpetuating the division of inside/outside.  By using familiar chord progressions and melodies, the music appeals to something that resonates deeper inside of us.  Rather than making distinctions between something like guitar and horn or electronic sample and live acoustic, on this album the band relies on the notion of degree and tone.  A song like “The Creature” achieves a sense of dynamics not from a variety of instruments but rather a subtle development of tone amongst the several guitars on the track.  Several songs utilize multiple guitar or violin tracks to weave around a melody, a technique which creates a feeling of multiple branches stemming from the same trunk, or, if you agree with my general analysis of the lyrics, multiple creatures roaming the same body or self.  The result is stirring and elegant, a texture that resonates in the simple devices of folk rock as well as the attempts of artists throughout time to prove that there is more in heaven and earth that is dreamt of in our philosophy.

Even if you refuse to allow a rock record (and a short one at that, clocking in around 35 minutes) to challenge your very method of defining yourself, to give you access to worlds lying so simply around you and inside of you that it would take years before you found them without Elf Power’s help, Creatures still possesses a charisma, intensity, and beauty that the most casual of listeners should enjoy.

Matt King

Track List:

  1. Let the Serpent Sleep
  2. Everlasting Scream
  3. The Creature
  4. Palace of the Flames
  5. The Modern Mind
  6. Visions of the Sea
  7. Things That Should Not Be
  8. Three Seeds
  9. The Haze
  10. Unseen Hand
  11. The Creature Part II

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